Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ right fielder Bryce Harper endured criticism before his career in the big leagues ever began. That criticism has continued since his 2010 entry into Major League Baseball, with even some fans of his new Phillies team calling him over-hyped. But all that noise was drowned out by a Philadelphia Phillies crowd when Harper hit the game-winning home run in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series to send his team to the 2022 World Series.
Athletes and teams face criticism regularly, especially when they fail to fulfill their fans’ hopes and expectations. When they finally have that marquee moment—as Harper did—should we consider their success revenge or redemption? Is it even healthy to think about their success in these ways? The Bible says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). So are players wrong for exacting revenge by elevating their gameplay to shut the mouths of all their haters? Or are we just fancying up the language by calling it redemption? Or is it neither?
When Bryce Harper signed a mega 13-year, $330 million contract, some felt he wasn’t worth it. And when the team he left (The Washington Nationals) won the World Series in Harper’s immediate absence, his contract felt even more preposterous, given the Phillies didn’t even make the playoffs. Harper has won two MVP titles, was the National League Rookie of the Year, and has been a six-time All-Star. Despite these accomplishments, Harper has still been seen as a bust—at least until now.
You would think for someone like Harper—someone who’s certainly had his immature moments but has endured the criticism—cracking a home run to send his team to the World Series would feel like revenge or redemption. But for him, it was neither. “I don’t like looking back,” Harper said after the Phillies victory. “I like to look forward.”
Harper’s response can help athletes and fans reevaluate our reactions to failure, criticism, and competition. Some players admit their performances are motivated by revenge (e.g., Michael Jordan). But it’s ultimately the athlete’s presence in the present moments that shape their legacy. If Harper was at the plate thinking about all his past haters instead of focusing on each incoming pitch, he wouldn’t have been able to hit the game-winning home run to send his team to the World Series.
God’s Word can help us with all types of teaching and wisdom, even for seemingly trivial reasons like this (2 Timothy 3:16).
The Bible is primarily a gift and a tool to help us understand the heart of God and His relationship with humanity. And with it, he provides principles regarding issues like revenge and redemption. Harper’s focus on looking forward, rather than dwelling on the past, is an example of why God might command us to divert our attention away from vengeance. Our efforts are better used to focus on the opportunities in front of us.
And when it comes to redemption, I don’t think Harper “redeemed” himself in any consequential way. As already mentioned, Harper is a high-quality athlete with awards to show for it. But even without the accolades, the idea of an athlete “redeeming” themselves reduces their value as a person.
Redemption in sports proffers the idea that a person is only as valuable as their performance. And in my experience of coaching high school sports and observing college and professional sports, this is one of the more detrimental ways for athletes to think about themselves and for us fans to see them.
This may seem like nitpicking at semantics, but for Christians, these words and ideas are weighty—especially if we’re watching as fans of these sports. We are entrenched in a grossly capitalistic culture that repurposes everything and everyone as consumables. If they provide no substance that we can devour, they’re inevitably useless. But that’s not how God commands us to see our neighbors. Every person is created in the image of God; therefore, every person is inherently valuable in His eyes (Genesis 1:27). This is why Bryce Harper does not need revenge or redemption after helping to catapult the Philadelphia Phillies into the World Series.
The best revenge is no revenge when it involves competing in sports. It’s taking advantage of every present moment as an opportunity to display God’s glory with our skills and talents. As we are already two games into the 2022 World Series (as of this writing), every time Bryce Harper steps up to bat, may we remember that we do not need revenge or redemption to assess our worth. Our value is inherent no matter how we perform.